Tag Archives: Buddha

Such a Luang journey…

Standard

So we left you in Pai, the chilled out capital of Northern Thailand. Unfortunately, the journey across the border and into Laos didn’t really follow on the same vein …

Laos

The red path indicates our journey (ignoring the final line to Vientiane.. that came later): minibus to Chiang Kong, a nondescript town on the Thai side of the border; couple of hours sleep – fine for us but flea-ridden and sleepless for some of our fellow bus-mates; up at dawn for a short boat ride over to Huay Xai, our first introduction to Laos; faffing for hours at immigration – forms and queues and waiting and confusion; and finally, a two-day slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.

Hefty.

The slow boat is an experience  in itself, and we highly recommend it. Actually, saying that, there aren’t many other options – it’s either that, a fast boat which has a terrifyingly high rate of annual casualties (you have to wear motorbike helmets – and so loud that you couldn’t possibly talk), or a non-air-conditioned bus which may or may not actually arrive at its destination.

A couple of other slowboats we passed en route

A couple of other slowboats we passed en route

The actual vessel is a wooden longboat, about 40-50m in length with the engine at the back and the driver (helmsman?) at the front. It was decked out with car seats (!), a miniature bar at the back and one rickety toilet. The roof is covered with a tarpaulin and the sides are open, creating a semi-cooling breeze as we drifted down the river. The Mekong is absolutely stunning; wide and fairly fast flowing, with towering ranges on either side covered in impenetrable jungle. Every so often you pass a narrow fishing boat with a single fisherman aboard, shying away from the merciless sun under a wide-brimmed straw hat. Groups of naked children splash in the shallows, and beautiful women dressed in Laos silk skirts and invariably with a baby strapped to their back, scrub clothes and lay them out to dry on the smooth rocks behind them. There seems to be an inordinate amount of butterflies, specks of white and yellow that flutter around the surface of the water and bloom in front of you as you walk.

DSC_0111

The journey passes in a blur of heat and chatter and unfamiliar sights. As you pull into Luang Prabang, a whole three days and two nights after you originally set out, you are so ready to hit dry land and stop blimmin’ moving, that you honestly wouldn’t care, nor probably notice, if you had just docked in Timbuktu. What a treat, then, that Luang Prabang is the gem in Laos’ crown and encompasses the ethos of Laos completely. When people say that the Lao people are gentle and genuinely interested in you, they are 100% spot on. There is no aggressive hassling, most people actually want to help you and their politeness and kindness is unrivalled.

 

Sunset from Phu Si

Sunset from Phu Si

The actual town is a delight. The first thing that meets the eye is an enormous temple – Phu Si – positioned atop a hill right in the middle of the city. It’s 100m high (190 steps, sweaty or wha?!), but the impressive panoramic views from top (sunset and sunrise in particular) are well worth the exertion of the climb. Phu Si sets the tone for the rest of the town as Luang Prabang is home to 39 Wat and has acquired the nickname, the ‘city of temples’. The monk and novice population is so omnipresent and so real that we never know whether we are actually allowed to go into the temples of if they are just for the practicing monks. We spent an afternoon in the library with two novice monks helping out with some ‘informal English lessons’, and ended up chatting about their facebook profiles and Steve Jobs. Pretty surreal.

 

Crossing a rickety bamboo bridge across the Mekong

DSC_0022

One of the many wats…

 

Yet, that is one of the delights of Luang Prabang – that the monks and temples are fully integrated into everyday life. A major draw is the renowned Tak Bat – a daily ceremony where novice monks form a line down the city’s main street to receive alms at dawn. It is a really beautiful experience, all carried out total silence. The alms givers are mainly women, who roll out a woven mat and kneel on it surrounded by their offerings, which mainly consist of sticky rice and small packets of biscuits. As the monks process past, they bow their heads and place a handful of rice into the alms bowl. Interestingly, alongside the almsgivers there were a few scruffy looking young boys, each holding an empty basket or bag and occasionally one of the monks would take a handful from his own bowl and put it into the boy’s basket. I asked later what this meant and the novices told me that they belonged to poor families or didn’t have enough to eat themselves, so the monks would in turn give them charity. These acts of charity, so very much in evidence in daily life, reflect the importance of religion in Laos as alms giving is one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism.
DSC_0020

I apologise for the lack of photos of the Tak Bat but I didn’t really consider it appropriate to take a camera. This is especially relevant as the monks have recently threatened to stop doing it as they feel that the tourists are slightly taking the proverbial biscuit in terms of getting too close in order to get the perfect photo op, and are giving the monks old food which is making them ill just so they can feel that they are part of the ceremony. Having been there and seen the busloads of tourists that pull up bleary eyed, hop out and almost push into the line of monks wielding their super-hypo-panoramic-long-lenses with an astonishing amount of insensitivity, I can kind of see their point.

Added to this melee of monastic and layperson life is the ghost of the colonial French past. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO heritage site, which means that French architecture and Gallic cuisine are still very much in evidence, giving the place a quaint and serene feel. You occasionally come across French bakeries, and bilingual schools, yet according to our novice friends, no one speaks French anymore – only the oldies. The city is also home to an extensive night market – it’s certainly a sight to behold as you descend the 190 steps from watching the sunset at Phu Si and see a sea of red roofed tents and twinkling fairy lights as the market gets going.

The tented Night Market

The tented Night Market

 

One final draw of Luang Prabang (as if there aren’t enough already) is the close proximity to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.

The waterfall itself

The waterfall itself

Honestly, with brilliant turquoise water, natural Jacuzzis and great lengths of cascading waterfalls, this place looks like it could be some sort of multi-million pound resort, yet it’s ALL NATURAL! There are about 4 pools in total, many of which you can cool off in, which lead to an enormous multi-tiered waterfall at the top. Sitting on slippery limestone and feeling the ice-cold water on your back is just bliss.

 

Gearing ourselves up for the rope swing...

Gearing ourselves up for the rope swing…

 

...CHAMPIONING the rope swing

…CHAMPIONING the rope swing

One of the many menthol coloured pools

One of the many menthol coloured pools

Perfect for a cheesy photo op!

So much cheese I think I may be sick (I promise we’re not photoshopped in)

We had to leave Luang Prabang in the end – kicking and screaming and the like. It is an unforgettable place, whether due to the hilarious group of people we had magically acquired (legends), the city’s charm or just because Luang Prabang epitomises Laotian culture, ambiance and beauty. We don’t care why, we just know that we, for one, would love to go back.

Advertisements

If I had an elephant, I’d call it Nelly

Standard

DSC_1148

For the record, Thailand is actually REALLY LONG. Coming from our fair isle (fair, but also fairly small), Thailand seems huge. And with it’s size comes a lot of diversity.

Post-Bangkok, we both took our full bellies and newly acquired viruses (how you manage to get a stinking cold in 36 degree heat escapes us) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai and Pai

If you have the opportunity to go to the north of Thailand, go. With a mountainous backdrop, cooler climate and calmer pace of life, it couldn’t be further away from the heat of the islands and the chaos of the capital. There are only 174,000 inhabitants in Chiang Mai, a village compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and the city is dominated by a walled and moated old town – picturesque indeed. It is awash with temples, historic buildings and even a Buddhist University, so seeing a monk with his alms bowl at dawn is a common occurrence. This seemingly sleepy place comes alive at night with the sprawling Night Bazaar, for which Chiang Mai is renowned. It is also famed for being the gateway to the hills – there’s an abundance of treks and organised outings for those who want to explore the surrounding jungle.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

NOTE: Be CAREFUL with the treks – it’s a huge gamble choosing a tour operator and a lot of travelers end up disappointed. We met a couple who’d forked out for a 3-day jungle trek and didn’t quite realise that it was no country amble, it was a Thai-Army-Action-Commando-style adventure. The jungle here is pretty much straight out of Jumanji, so if you’re stuck there battling spiders the size of your hand and burning leeches off your ankles, it’s not so much fun.

Of course, Cel and I did LOADS of research and asked LOADS of people … (or maybe just picked a place with a nice looking lady who was really chatty and had nice pictures in the office). Regardless, we plumped for a one-day-er and for a pittance we rode elephants, visited a hill tribe village, swam in a waterfall, walked alongside paddy fields, (dubiously) shot a crossbow, made our way down a river on bamboo rafts… WIN!

It was an absolutely fantastic day, if not quite an experience in places. For example, despite feeding the elephants about 4 tonnes of bananas, it was hard to shake the feeling that they might not be leading the happiest of lives. Although there are a plethora of eco-friendly ‘Elephant Camps’ in Thailand – where elephants live in comfort and luxury and are treated fantastically by well-trained ‘Mahout’ (handlers) – there are a hell of a lot more which rake in the cash from gullible tourists (such as ourselves), and work the elephants a little too hard and use elephant hooks a little too liberally. To be honest, it is hard to judge as we couldn’t understand what the guides were saying and we don’t know anything about the training and handling of animals, but if you go with gut feeling, I think we both felt rather guilty. Lesson learnt – when animals are involved, don’t go for the cheap option.

Hungry nelly-phant

Hungry nelly-phant

DSC_1167

Having a drink to cool off

Having a drink to cool off

DSC_1164

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe...

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe…

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

The bamboo rafting was probably the most unforgettable, namely because our ‘driver’ was an absolute legend. Each raft was made up of about 5 or 6 thick tubes of bamboo strung together with strips of old tyre. (Ace Ventura, eat your heart out. ) You can fit 5 people on it, four farang and one driver, who essentially punts at the front using a long stick of bamboo. However, he didn’t last long and soon gave up, consigning charge of the raft to Cel and another lad. He him sat back and barked instructions, shouting ‘Rie..rie…control rie. Mmmmmm. Lef..LEF! LEFCONTROL LEF!!’ before we got absolutely annihilated by rocks and rapids. Anther catchphrase of his was, ‘no wet no fun’, which he’d mutter to himself before he soaked us and encouraged local children who were playing along the river to do the same. All Cel’s hard work and manual labour paid off as we rounded a corner of the river and in front of us three elephants and their baby ambled across the water in front of us. They were silhouetted against the low sun and as they reached the other side they stopped and started splashing themselves in the river, spraying themselves and cooling down. Corny as it sounds, it was genuinely magical.

Take a look at the map at the top, and the star up a bit and to the left of Chiang Mai was our next destination – Pai. So the road there might have been horrendously mountainous and we may have spent the journey clutching onto our seats and repeating rosaries, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that this was our kind of place. It has a population of just 2,000 and is set in a mountain fortressed valley; a perfect setting for the laid-back hippy lifestyle that Pai nurtures. The best thing to do there, aside from relax and take in the town, is to make your way up another hair-raising hill climb to the Yun Lai view point, which towers above the valley. We were on a scooter and only JUST managed it – Cel was driving and Imogen actually made a quick exit by jumping off the back halfway up the hill… lighten the load and all that! The view from the top is stunning. The mountains look fake – coloured in various shades of purple and green, you can see all the hillside villages with the wonky houses and bamboo roofs, and best of all, it is utterly silent up there. As you arrive, an old Chinese man (it is above the Chinese village of Santichon) shuffles towards you with a beautifully decorated pot of tea and two tiny mugs. You sit in the shade, sipping your piping hot tea and looking out over the valley.. it’s bliss. I guess the calmness and serenity of the viewpoint kind of summed up our experience in Pai; not only is it extremely chilled, but it feels like you are experiencing how Thai people live. Tourists are secondary here –  the Thais just carry on with their lives and we are lucky enough to get a sneaky peek.

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Tea time

Tea time

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

At first she was a bit apprehensive...

…at first she was a bit apprehensive…

...but then she became extremely friendly!

…but she became extremely friendly!

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon + intrepid explorer

Next stop, Laos. Heading up to the border (past Chiang Rai) and slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.